White House Door Isn’t Always Open to Ex-Cons

Visitors with a criminal record say roadblocks show a disconnect with Obama’s message of redemption

Colleen McCain Nelson, Gary Fields

The Wall Street Journal

Aug. 23, 2015 6:00 a.m. ET

President Barack Obama, as part of his push to overhaul the criminal-justice system, has said ex-offenders should have a chance at redemption. The White House’s security operation, however, hasn’t always been on board.

Invited guests with convictions in their past have encountered an array of roadblocks when attending meetings with administration officials. Some have been denied entry. Others have been assigned an escort. Several said they felt stigmatized by the experience.

There are many factors that could prompt tighter security, including the rise of Islamic State and concerns about lone-wolf domestic threats. The Secret Service also has experienced some miscues—including not preventing a man who jumped the fence from making it inside the White House—that have raised questions about Mr. Obama’s protection.

Still, those who have been stopped at the gate, among them leaders on criminal-justice issues, say their experiences reveal a disconnect between the administration’s rhetoric and its real-life practices. And, even with bipartisan agreement that change is needed, their treatment shows how hard it will be to alter business and government practices ingrained through decades of use.

“I was treated like a second-class citizen as a prelude to a conversation about how to overcome a criminal record,” said Glenn Martin, an ex-offender who is now an advocate for reducing the correctional population and overhauling sentencing laws.

A spokesman for the Secret Service declined to detail precisely what would preclude someone from entering the White House or the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building but said all guests are subjected to screening.

“There are many considerations taken into account in making a final determination before allowing an individual access to the White House complex,” Brian Leary said.

When Vicki L. Lopez was invited to the White House, she was eager to discuss her work on prisoner re-entry issues. Ms. Lopez had attended similar meetings at the White House during George W. Bush’s presidency without incident, but her visits during the Obama administration have been much different.After traveling from Florida in 2009, Ms. Lopez and her colleagues never made it past the Secret Service checkpoint. Eventually, their meeting was moved to a nearby conference center. A similar scene played out a few months later when her meeting was relocated to a deli after she was turned away at the White House.

Ms. Lopez, a former county commissioner in Florida, was convicted of a form of mail fraud and sentenced to 27 months in a federal prison. President Bill Clinton commuted her sentence in 2000, and she was completely exonerated when her conviction was vacated in 2011.

No one explained why, exactly, Ms. Lopez wasn’t allowed to meet with officials in the Executive Office Building. “Somehow we’re unsafe, and somehow we’re not welcome,” she said.

Mr. Obama has made his push for rewriting federal sentencing laws and changing the criminal-justice system a central focus in recent months. He has asserted that a criminal record shouldn’t haunt someone indefinitely and has lauded ex-offenders who have gone on to earn degrees and do good work in their communities.

“I’m going to shine a spotlight on this issue because while the people in our prisons have made some mistakes—and sometimes big mistakes—they are also Americans, and we have to make sure that as they do their time and pay back their debt to society that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around,” Mr. Obama said last month.

The American Bar Association is building an inventory that catalogs the barriers that can prevent people who have committed a crime from returning to society and becoming productive. So far, the effort has identified more than 45,000 federal and state statutes, guidelines and other requirements that present some hurdle for former offenders to reintegrate into the community.

Mr. Martin, who founded JustLeadershipUSA, said he is always on guard, braced for the unending aftermath of his armed robbery conviction 20 years ago. When he arrived at the Executive Office Building for a meeting about criminal-justice issues in June, his colleagues quickly passed through security. Mr. Martin was detained before eventually receiving a bright pink visitor badge emblazoned with the label “Needs Escort.”

“It felt like a scarlet letter,” he said. “Suddenly I was so much less than my colleagues.”

Mr. Martin wrote a letter to Mr. Obama, telling the president that his treatment was “as insulting as it was indicative of the broader problem.” Six weeks later, he received a response from the president that didn’t address his specific situation but said Mr. Obama was committed to helping formerly incarcerated people re-enter society.

While some former offenders appear to have been singled out, Janine Bertram Kemp, a disability rights advocate, said she didn’t have any problems during a recent visit to the White House for the 25th anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act. Ms. Bertram, 64 years old, served four years in prison for conspiracy and bank robbery as part of a 1970s revolutionary group.

“It went off absolutely without a hitch,” she said, adding “that going into such a high security place, I’m surprised they ever let me in.”

Meantime, Wallace Kirby, a community organizer with University Legal Sevices’ DC Jail and Prison Advocacy Project, was invited to the same event in July. The day before, he received a call saying the Secret Service had done a background check and he was now uninvited.

Mr. Kirby, 59, who entered prison for armed robbery at age 16 and was released for the last time in 1995, has a question for the administration: “What do you want me to do?” he asked. “We are taxpaying residents who go into these neighborhoods and serve the communities.”

An administration official said this White House has repeatedly brought in people who have served time in prison to hear their thoughts and would continue that conversation. One of the guests sitting with first lady Michelle Obama’s during this year’s State of the Union address, Prophet Walker, was formerly incarcerated for robbery and is now helping to shape prison policies, the official said.